Thursday, 4 June 2015

Machi Koro: Harbor Expansion

Plays (of expansion): 3Px1.

The Game

Machi Koro is a favourite among the new-to-me games played this year. It was recently shortlisted for the Spiel des Jahres award. Many fellow gamers say that it must be played with with Harbor expansion. I had the opportunity to try that, so I grabbed the chance.

If you are not familiar with the base game, see my previous blog post from a few months ago. Here are what the Harbor expansion changes:

  1. There are quite many new buildings. Many of the building numbers overlap with buildings in the base game, but naturally the building powers are different.
  2. To win, you need to construct six landmarks instead of four. The two new landmarks are the harbor (of course) and the airport. Like the landmarks in the base game, these two new landmarks have their own unique abilities too.
  3. To me, the most important change is this: Instead of having every card in the game available for purchase at all times, the central card pool now only allows 10 types of cards. At the start of the game you shuffle all cards and then draw them one by one. Cards are placed face-up in the card pool, with cards of the same type stacked together. Once you have 10 stacks, you stop. Some of these stacks may have only one card. Whenever all buildings in one stack are sold out, you start drawing cards from the draw deck again to be added to the pool. Once a 10th type of card is drawn, you stop again.

There are only 10 types of cards available in the pool. At this point most of these stacks have only one card.

The row in the middle is the landmarks. There are seven of them, but the first one is a free building. It is already constructed and functioning at the start of the game. It is a consolation building - when you run out of cash, it gives you $1. Among the other six landmarks, at this point I have built only one. The row at the bottom are my regular buildings. I prefer to arrange them by number. Each time the dice are rolled, I can easily look up the cards with the relevant number.

The Play

With the 3rd modification above, the game changes significantly. You can no longer play a game with a preconceived plan like in the base game. The starting set of 10 cards differs from game to game, and the number of initially available cards of each type will differ too. You really have to go with the flow and try to make the most of what opportunities present themselves. It is much harder to execute those perfect combos in the base game, because you can't count on specific combinations of cards being available. What's even rarer is the availability of many cards of the same type, which is often the cornerstone of powerful strategies in the base game. Many strategies which are applicable in the base game have to be thrown out the window or have to undergo major surgery.

The way cities grow now feel more organic, as opposed to those perfectly planned and executed cities in the base game. In a way the game becomes more tactical and less strategic because you can't predict what cards will come up next. You need to adapt to the ever changing card pool. You react to opportunities that crop up. The game is much more fluid. I like that.

One interesting point: with the Harbor expansion it is rare to see many copies of the same building available, unlike in the base game. Quite often if you see only one copy of a card, there is little incentive to buy it. Ideally you want many copies of a few different types of cards which combo well with one another. However, if a particular stack is neglected for long, gradually there will be more cards drawn and added to it. As the number of cards increase, that stack will become increasingly tempting because a strategy centred around it will become more and more viable. This is an interesting dynamic.

Chen Rui (8) prefers to arrange her cards by colour. The colours have meaning, e.g. red cards trigger on your opponents' turns, blue cards trigger on everyone's turns.

A three-player game takes up quite a bit of space.

I was only one landmark away from winning, but eventually was beaten to it by Shee Yun (10).

The Thoughts

With the Harbor expansion, the game does take longer to play. It is much harder to build those super-efficient engines very quickly like in the base game (e.g. buying up all the ranches and cheese factories). The two additional landmarks required do increase the play time, but they are not the biggest contributor. The main contributor is the additional challenge in getting your city's growth engine running.

I definitely prefer playing Machi Koro with the expansion. It greatly increases replayability, and makes each game more varied. In contrast, the base game feels rather limited in strategic options. It's fun, but you will tend to gravitate towards a handful of powerful combos. One thing that doesn't change is the lottery joy. You are building your city and setting up combos, and you are praying to the dice gods to grant you your number. The anticipation at every die roll and the exhilaration when hitting the jackpot are what keep me engaged and in love.

This is a wonderful light strategy game for families. My children beat me frequently. There is luck, but we still feel that we have control, that we have achieved something, that we have done something right. If we lose, it's because we just needed a little bit more of good luck. If we win, it's because we've been clever.

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